News flash! It is possible to prevent the ‘terrible twos’

Published on Wednesday, 08 July 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Any parent who’s tried to manage a toddler meltdown will be interested to hear about new research which suggests that the ‘terrible twos’ are not inevitable.

A study of young children from England, America and the Netherlands indicates that happy babies can become happy toddlers, with the help of flexible parenting, so let’s see what this means in practice and how the ‘terrible twos’ may be prevented.

How can a parenting style influence toddler behaviour?

Although it’s very common for toddlers to have tantrums and show defiant behaviour and frustration, researchers at the University of Cambridge and University of Birmingham have found that parents can reduce behavioural problems by taking a more flexible approach to their young child’s learning.

Specifically, a method of parenting called ‘autonomy support’ can have a positive influence on behaviour, and this involves Mum or Dad encouraging their child to take the lead, watching as they engage in a task, then providing greater or lesser support, depending on how their child is going.

One of the brains behind the research, Professor Claire Hughes, describes autonomy support as a ‘to-and-fro’ between parent and child.

She explains that, ‘Rather than trying to make a child achieve a rigidly defined task, autonomy support is more of a playful interaction. It promotes the child’s problem-solving and their ability to learn by letting games or tasks evolve into experiences that engage them,’ and Professor Hughes says this approach can minimise the ‘terribleness’ of the twos.

What did the University of Cambridge and University of Birmingham research involve?

To gauge how much a parenting style can affect a toddler’s behaviour, the researchers recruited more than 400 families from three countries and visited participants when their child was four months, 14 months and 24-months-old.

Each time, they filmed parents interacting with their little ones as they engaged in a range of specific tasks and then rated the level of support the parents gave (with some parents offering lots of help to complete a task, and others letting a difficult task evolve into something the child could manage).

The researchers also asked parents to rate their child’s temperament as a baby, and to highlight behavioural problems at the age of 14 and 24 months.

After studying the families over time, the researchers found a link between parental autonomy support when children were 14-months-old and reduced behavioural problems 10 months later, when the children turned two.

Simply put, those children who were encouraged to take the lead early on, and had high levels of self-control, were less likely to exhibit behavioural problems as toddlers.

There is a caveat, though, because the link between autonomy support and better behaviour only applied to children who’d been rated as ‘easy’ babies (those who were usually happy, adapted easily to new experiences and quickly got into routines).

Researchers found that the autonomy support approach wasn’t equally effective for, ‘Those born with a more irritable temperament,’ and these children remain more likely to be challenging toddlers.

Where does this leave parents?

Autonomy support is a beneficial way to build relationships between parents and children, promote early learning, and possibly ward off those toddler tantrums.

Professor Hughes says that if you have a naturally happy baby then, ‘You can get them through the ‘terrible twos’ without things getting too bad or lasting too long, by being flexible about the way you play with your child between the age of 14 and 24 months.’

In practice, this could mean that a quiet farm animal puzzle morphs into a noisy mimicking game, with your child making animal sounds to match the wooden pieces being clapped together.

If your baby isn’t so happy-go-lucky, then the researchers recommend that you let go of the idea of achieving set goals during play and give your child the freedom to develop at their own pace.

Whatever your child’s disposition, it’s important to remember that toddlerhood calls for patience, and there will be times when even the cheeriest child behaves in challenging ways.

Although a toddler’s natural temperament will influence how strongly they react to things, drivers like stress, hunger, fatigue, over-stimulation and even the loss of a favourite toy can trigger a meltdown, but you can take comfort in the fact that tantrums are part of your child’s development.

Raising Children explains that tantrums are, ‘One of the ways that young children express and manage feelings and try to understand or change what’s going on around them’.

Tantrums aren’t isolated to the terrible twos, or even to ages one to three, but the good news is that children get better at regulating their emotions, calming down, and communicating their grievances as they get older.

In the meantime, Raising Children has some good tips for minimising toddler tantrums, and according to the English researchers, autonomy support by parents can make the toddler years a bit less tempestuous for some. Good luck!

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